TOWSON, Md. (AP) — The historic vote by workers at an Apple store in Maryland to unionize — a first for the tech giant — is a significant step in a lengthy process that labor experts say is heavily against workers in favor of their employers is stacked .
Workers at an Apple store in suburban Baltimore voted by a nearly 2-1 majority to unionize Saturday, joining a growing push in the US retail, service and technology industries to organize for better protection in the workplace.
It’s not yet clear if the recent wave of unionization represents a broader shift in the US workforce. But experts say the current shortage of workers for hourly and low-wage jobs means workers have more power than in the past, especially when unemployment is low.
“It’s not that big of a deal losing one of those jobs because you can get another crappy job,” said Ruth Milkman, an ergonomist at City University of New York.
The question is what happens now?
Apple retail workers in Towson, Maryland, voted 65 to 33 to join the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, the union’s announcement said. The National Labor Relations Board must now certify the result. A spokesman relayed initial voting questions to the board’s regional office, which was closed late Saturday. The board did not immediately respond to a message from the Associated Press on Sunday.
Once the vote is confirmed, the union and Apple can begin contract negotiations.
“Labour law in the United States is a long process. Thus, the fact that an individual shop negotiates or elects a union does not mean that there is a negotiated contract in the workplace. And we know from recent history that in many of these situations, the parties cannot agree on an original contract,” Michael Duff, a former NLRB attorney and professor at the University of Wyoming College of Law, said Sunday.
“The employer in the United States has a great many rights to simply withdraw recognition at the end of the process. The employer can show that it no longer supports a majority of workers in the union,” added Duff.
Even after a union is certified, there are a number of legal maneuvers a company can use to fight it, Duff said. For example, Apple might say that it doesn’t think the NLRB-certified tariff unit is an appropriate tariff unit. and refuse to negotiate with the union.
“When that happens, the whole thing goes to court and it can easily take a year or two before you even get the question of whether the employer has an obligation to negotiate with the union,” added Duff.
Labor experts say it’s common for employers to drag out the negotiation process to thwart union campaigns. It’s also possible that Apple — or any other company — will restructure its business so that unionized workers are classified as independent contractors rather than employees, in which case the union’s vote is disputed, Duff said.
Apple declined to comment on Saturday’s development, company spokesman Josh Lipton told The Associated Press over the phone. Reached again Sunday, Apple did not comment.
The successful vote serves to inspire workers across the country to get organized, said John Logan, director of labor and employment studies at San Francisco State University.
“Workers are already organizing in other Apple stores, but it shows them that the company is not invincible,” he said.
Apple’s well-known brand name should also help.
“The public has a very direct relationship with companies like Apple, so the first union victory will generate tremendous coverage in traditional media and social media,” Logan said. “Young workers are learning about union activism through this coverage, and some are likely to be inspired to try to organize their own workplaces.”
Despite US labor laws being stacked against workers, Duff said he thinks that “if there’s going to be a resurgent labor movement in the United States, that’s what’s going to happen.”
Union organizing in a variety of sectors has recently gained momentum after decades of declining union membership in the US. Organizers have worked to create unions at companies including Amazon, Starbucks, Google parent Alphabet and outdoor retailer REI.
The International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers and Apple employees who wanted to join said they told Apple CEO Tim Cook last month that they wanted to form a union. The statement said her driving motivation is the search for “rights we don’t currently have.” She added that workers had recently organized into the Coalition of Organized Retail Employees (CORE).
“I applaud the courage shown by CORE members at the Apple Store in Towson to achieve this historic victory,” said Robert Martinez Jr., President of IAM International, in the statement. “They made a huge sacrifice for the thousands of Apple employees across the country who had all eyes on this election.”
Martinez called on Apple to respect the election results and allow unionized employees to rush to get a contract at the Towson site.
The IAM bills itself as one of the largest and most diverse industrial unions in North America, representing approximately 600,000 active and retired members in the aerospace, defense, airline, railroad, transportation, healthcare, automotive and other industries. Logan said Apple’s victory shows that the mainstream labor movement is “able to adapt to the needs of the group of independently minded, confident workers that you find in Apple stores.”
The vote to organize the Apple Stores comes against a backdrop of other nationwide efforts to organize workers – some of which have been rejected.
Amazon employees at a warehouse in New York City voted to organize in April, the first successful US organizing effort in the history of the retail giant. However, workers at another Amazon warehouse on Staten Island overwhelmingly refused a union offer last month. Starbucks now operates in dozens of US stores have voted to organize in recent months after two stores of the coffee chain in Buffalo, New York, Voted to unionize late last year.
Many union efforts have been led by young workers in their 20s and even into their teens. A group of Google engineers and other workers formed the Alphabet Workers Union last year, representing around 800 Google employees and led by five people under the age of 35.
“This is the generation with a worldview that’s really different than what we’ve seen in many generations,” said CUNY’s Milkman. “You believe in it.”